One way to address the lack of diversity in tech is to expose kids to computer science as early as possible. That’s exactly what Ruth Mesfun is doing. She studied how to teach Computer Science, so she could conjure up a curriculum and launch a new class for the Excellence Girls Middle Academy, an all-girls, majority-black middle school in Brooklyn.
She has also created a website called “People of Color in Tech” (POCIT) with her developer friend Michael Berhane, so her kids can find role models to look up to. The website features interviews of engineers, designers and other people of color in the industry, and Mesfun and Berhane hope to to add two more profiles every week.
The tireless teacher told TechCrunch that the website’s main goal is to demonstrate that there are “so many [people of color] who want to support each other” in a world that’s mostly made up of white guys. It might take a while before the industry becomes more diverse, but at least more people are making an effort to change things now. One of them’s NYC’s local government, which eventually wants all public schools in the city to offer computer science courses.
As tech companies continue to share diversity statistics with the public, it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do to boost inclusion in tech. Yet, people of color are working at some of the largest companies in technology even though their numbers are few.
Google’s latest diversity stats from January 2015 show that 2% of its workforce is black. Meet three successful Google engineers:
Clennita Justice is a Social Engineering program manager. She’s been at Google more than half a decade.
She was hired to launch Google e-books, which became Google Play Books. Now, she does user research and Product Excellence—a focus on making the right product for the right user—part of Google’s shift in culture from launching to adopting. Justice’s particular area of focus is infrastructure.
Originally from Los Angeles, Justice has a Master’s degree in Computer Science from Howard University. She pursued a degree in Computer Science before the Internet was ubiquitous and before the big push to get women and girls interested in STEM, and despite the insistence of her uncle (who worked for IBM) that she study business.
A pivotal moment in her life was when someone in the Computer Science department at her university said he didn’t think she would stay in Computer Science. Not only did she stay and complete her degree, but she received the best job offer of anyone in her class.
Justice is a strong believer in self-educating. She also advises, “Anyone who gets into tech has to be a constant learner. That’s how you stay relevant.”
Aggrey Jacobs is a software engineer for Google Play; specifically, he works on Google Play Books for iPhone and iPad applications. His typical day is spent mostly coding, although he also engages in general problem solving for iOS at Google and also helps bring more users on board.
Prior to Google, Jacobs worked as an iOS developer at Western Digital. How the 28-year-old ended up working for two of the most prestigious technology companies is interesting. Jacobs says he never really knew what he wanted to do, and that his father was the one who suggested he study computer engineering. Jacobs’ father’s own computer experience is limited to playing Solitaire on the computer, according to Jacobs, who says, “Who knows?” how his father had the knowledge to direct him to that career.
During his first semester in school, Jacobs learned Java programming. He ended up double-majoring in both computer and electrical engineering.
The Brooklyn native says a pivotal point in his life was when he was contemplating graduate school. He went, but dropped out, because he was “trying to figure out what to do.”
Jacobs relocated to California to search for a job. It was there that Google reached out to him and he was hired, although he didn’t see himself getting through the interview process.
He now encourages other people of color to apply at Google. He says lack of exposure and intimidation can prevent some from applying at the company. By the way, he still speaks often with his father.
Travis McPhail is a software engineer and tech lead who works with Google Maps.
He is currently leading an effort to create one library that performs all of Google’s renderings across Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View data.
McPhail believes the future of Google is through geospatial rendering applications that will allow people to be informed of the world around them.
He credits his career in software engineering to being “a bad kid” who “used to break a lot of things at home.” Fortunately, instead of “strangling him,” his father bought him a Commodore 64 computer when he was just five years old.
He had a natural affinity for technology from the start. His father challenged him to learn to use the computer, and McPhail says he started to “bang away on it.”